Giving your kids happy, healthy childhoods could set them up for success in life. But many parents wonder, how exactly do you raise happy kids in today’s world?
Raising happy kids isn’t about giving them momentary pleasure or immediate gratification. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Happy kids have a skill set that allows them to enjoy long-term happiness in life. They’re able to pass up instant gratification in an effort to reach their goals.
You can help your kids develop those skills by adopting healthy, lifelong habits. Here are 10 ways to raise happy kids.
Encourage Outdoor Play
Don’t underestimate the power of outdoor play. Running on the grass, climbing trees, sitting on a swing, and digging in the dirt is good for kids.
Studies show scents associated with nature, like pine trees, cut grass, and lavender can boost your child’s mood.1 So you might encourage your child to read a book outside or do his homework on the porch just to give him an instant boost in happiness.
Outdoor play can also improve social skills in children. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that children who increased their time playing outside increased their empathy, engagement, and self-control—which are critical social skills.2
Kids with better social skills are likely to enjoy healthier relationships. One study found kids with better social skills are also twice as likely to go to college and less likely to experience substance abuse, obesity, and violence.3
So make outdoor play a daily habit. Even when the weather isn’t perfect, encourage your kids to ride their bikes, play with neighborhood kids, and run around in the great outdoors.
Limit Screen Time
Your child might insist that playing endless hours of video games makes him happy. But too much screen time is bad for your child’s psychological well-being.
A 2018 study published in the journal Emotion found that adolescents who spent less time on their digital devices and more time on non-screen activities, like sports, homework, religious services, and other in-person activities were happier.4
Establish clear limits on your child’s screen time. If he has a smartphone, limit his access when you’re doing family activities, riding in the car, or when he’s playing outside. And set clear guidelines about how much time he can spend watching TV and using the computer.
Incorporating gratitude into your everyday lives could help kids become happier, healthier people. But, keep in mind that there’s a big difference between forcing a “thank you” and genuinely meaning it.
A 2012 study on gratitude found that grateful people enjoy better relationships—and that can be key to living a happier life.5 One of the best ways to help kids become genuinely grateful is by modeling gratitude.
Express sincere thanks when you are grateful for someone else. Expressing gratitude for the things your children do will teach them to do the same.
Make it a family habit to talk about the things you feel grateful for. Identify three things you’re grateful for at the dinner table or talk about what you’re grateful for at bedtime. This will help your children learn to look for things they can be grateful for in their daily lives.
Make it a habit to send thank you notes too. Instead of just signing his name, encourage your child to identify something specific he wants to thank someone for.
You don’t have to save thank you notes for gifts either. You might encourage your child to write a thank you note to his teacher for helping him during the school year or you might write a note to a coach who was especially kind.
Have High Expectations—But Not Too High
While it’s not fun to spend hours studying for a test or practicing a musical instrument, kids who strive to do hard things are more likely to live happier lives.
Your expectations have a big impact on your child’s willingness to challenge himself. Your kids will work hard to meet your expectations as long as your expectations are reasonable.
Studies show when parents have high academic expectations of their children, children do better in school and they persist longer at hard tasks.6 High expectations are also linked to scholastic and social resilience.
But it’s important to note that you shouldn’t expect perfection. Setting the bar too high for your child is likely to backfire.
Eating an extra cookie, ditching homework for fun with friends, and binge-watching TV instead of doing chores might give kids momentary pleasure. But, in the long run, a lack of self-control hurts more than it helps.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Personality found that people with better self-control report more good moods.7
Interestingly, however, researchers noted that people with better self-control also didn’t put themselves in tempting situations as often as other people. They essentially set themselves up to be happy.
Start teaching your child self-discipline at an early age. At the same time, teach her not to surround herself with too many temptations.
A few ways you might assist her in doing this could include:
- Put a basket in the kitchen for smartphones. Tell your child to put her smartphone in the basket when she’s doing homework so she’s not tempted to surf the internet when she’s supposed to be doing her work.
- Stock the refrigerator and cabinets with healthy food choices. If you keep some sweet treats in the house, make them more difficult to access—by putting them on high shelves or placing them in the back of the pantry out of sight.
- Put all electronics in a common area of the home before bedtime. Then, your child won’t be tempted to use her tablet or her phone when she’s in bed.
Your children won’t love clearing the table or dusting the living room now. But, assigning chores could be a key factor in helping them achieve long-term happiness.
One study found that giving kids chores at age 3 and 4 was the biggest predictor of long-term success.
It may be that children who do chores feel like they’re pitching in and that helps them feel more connected to their families. And that sense of connection may help them stay mentally strong when they encounter hard times.
Chores can also teach kids a variety of life lessons—such as responsibility and community service. They may also learn they can cope with boring tasks or that they’re capable of persisting even when they feel frustrated.
Making their beds and cleaning the kitchen can also give them a sense of accomplishment and show them that even though they’re young, they’re capable of making a difference.
Assign regular chores and expect your children to get them done. And you’ll help them learn life skills that will help them live happier lives as adults.7
Eat Dinner Together
When kids have sports practices, games, and other extracurricular activities, it can be tempting to grab something on-the-go and eat at different times. But eating as a family might be one of the best things you could if you want to raise happy kids.
One study found that a higher frequency of family meals was strongly associated with positive moods in adolescents.8 Another study found that teens who eat meals with their families have more positive views of the future.
Family meals may also promote good health. Kids who eat with their parents are less likely to be overweight or having eating disorders. Teens who eat dinner with their parents are also less likely to experience substance abuse issues or to exhibit behavior problems.
If you can’t get together for a family meal every night, don’t worry. Most studies have found kids benefit from eating with their parents a few nights each week.8
Avoid Overindulging Your Children
Buying your child lots of gifts on holidays or giving him everything he wants won’t actually make him happy. In fact, overindulging kids may actually take a toll on their psychological well-being.
Some research indicates that kids who are overindulged are likely to experience feelings of chronic discontent. They may struggle to identify the difference between wants and needs and consequently, they may think happiness stems from material goods.
So resist the urge to get your kids everything they want. Even though they might insist that having the newest smartphone, more brand name clothing, and a better bicycle will make them happy, the research indicates otherwise.
Give them an opportunity to earn privileges. They’ll appreciate things much more when they’ve had to work hard to get something, rather than having everything handed to them.
And focus more on experiences rather than things. Studies show people who feel the happiest spend their time and money creating memories, not collecting more items.99
Exercise as a Family
Whether you decide to go for a nightly walk together as a family or you do workout videos from the comfort of your living room, exercise can make everyone in the family happier.
A 2018 study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that the type of exercise didn’t matter.10 Aerobics, stretching and balance exercises, and weight lifting all provide a boost in happiness.
But you might think there’s no need to exercise together—after all, your child likely gets exercise at recess or through sports activities. But, exercise is likely to make you happier and happier parents tend to have happier kids.
Additionally, getting physically active together can help you bond and create positive memories together—which are even more ingredients for happiness.10
Help Other People
A multitude of studies have linked altruism to happiness. In fact, being kind to others can make your kids happier and happiness will make them kind. It’s a positive cycle that sets them up for a happier, healthier life.
A 2010 study published in The Journal of Social Psychology divided participants into three groups.11 One group was asked to perform a daily act of kindness, another group was told to do something new, and the third group received no instructions.
Researchers found that after just 10 days, the groups who performed acts of kindness and those who did new things experienced a big boost in happiness.
There are many ways you can get your kids involved in altruistic behavior. Here are just a few ideas:
- Challenge everyone in the family to do one act of kindness each day and share what you did over dinner each evening.
- Pick an organization to help each year and volunteer as a family a couple of hours each week.
- Set aside a certain amount of your child’s allowance each week to donate to a good cause and let your child pick where she wants the money to go.
A Word From Verywell
Keep in mind that kids don’t need to be happy all the time. In fact, they need to experience uncomfortable emotions too, like sadness, anger, fear, and disappointment.
There’s no need to cheer your kids up or take action when they’re experiencing uncomfortable emotions. Instead, coach them through it and help them find ways to soothe themselves and cope with their feelings.
It’s not a reflection of your parenting if they aren’t happy every minute of the day. Your job isn’t to become responsible for your children’s happiness. Instead, it’s up to you to give your children the skills they need to manage their emotions in a healthy way.
Finally, the best thing you can do to help raise happy kids is to give them a loving environment. Kids who know they are loved and cared about are more likely to thrive, even when they face tough circumstances in life.